Hong Kong's Iconic Pink Dolphins in Danger of Extinction

PHOTO: A pack of Chinese white dolphins near Tai O. PlayHong Kong University/WWF Hong Kong
WATCH Hong Kong's Iconic Dolphin in Danger of Extinction

Famous for its pink coloring, the Chinese white dolphin is under threat of extinction in Hong Kong.

Among other things, their shrinking habitat has deprived them of food and shelter, experts say.

“So that’s why it has seriously impacted the number of dolphins in Hong Kong,” Samantha Lee, conservation manager at the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong, said.

The number of these distinctive dolphins has decreased along with fewer sightings of young dolphins in Hong Kong waters. Their numbers have declined in Hong Kong’s western waters to 62 today from 158 in 2003, according to environmental group WWF-Hong Kong.

PHOTO: Samantha Lee and local dolphin watching operator scouting the waters for dolphins.Angel Canales/ABC News
Samantha Lee and local dolphin watching operator scouting the waters for dolphins.

The dolphins served as the official mascot of the 1997 ceremonies marking the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China from Great Britain, and the animals continue to attract tourists to Hong Kong’s western waters. Located about 37 miles west of Hong Kong, the fishing village of Tai O is a popular spot for dolphin watching where they face most of the threats.

The dolphin population in Hong Kong is declining because of five main factors: habitat loss from coastal development, water pollution, underwater noise pollution, vessel collision and overfishing.

PHOTO: Samantha Lee assists local fisherman place propeller guards to avoid hitting dolphins. Angel Canales/ABC News
Samantha Lee assists local fisherman place propeller guards to avoid hitting dolphins.

The dolphins’ habitat spans across Hong Kong's Pearl River Delta in southern China, which also happens to be one of the most congested marine traffic areas in the world. There were 12 dead finless porpoises found in Hong Kong waters last year, according to the WWF.

To slow the number of accidents, Lee and the World Wildlife Fund are working on a pilot program to reduce the risk of injuries from boat propellers. “We have been engaging the white dolphin operators in Tai O in order to reduce the threat to the Chinese white dolphin from the dolphin-watching business and activities and enhance the quality of the dolphin-watching business in this area,” she said The goal of the program is to install propeller guards on all tour boats to ensure that dolphins are protected in case they get too close.

PHOTO: The village of Tai O in western Hong Kong.Angel Canales/ABC News
The village of Tai O in western Hong Kong.

Coastal development has also played a major role in disrupting the dolphin habitat. Set to open next year, for instance, a 21-mile bridge under construction between Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai is in the dolphin habitat.

“For the past 20 years there have been more than 7,000 hectares of waters reclaimed [nearly 17,300 acres], and in Tai O more than 2,000 hectares [nearly 5,000 acres] have been reclaimed” for development, Lee said.

PHOTO: Construction of the 35km bridge under construction between Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai spans across the dolphins habitat.Angel Canales/ABC News
Construction of the 35km bridge under construction between Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai spans across the dolphin's habitat.

While the Hong Kong government has conservation initiatives in place to protect the animals, Lee says that those are not enough. She said authorities should put conservation ahead of development.

Lee hopes to see these Dolphins thrive in Hong Kong water again. “ I would go dolphin watching 10 years ago, and at the time, I would say out of 10 times, 10 times I could spot them in the sea. But now the chance is lower," she said.

"In this nice area we can still host this kind of lovely marine mammals so this is so important to us in order to try our best to fight for a safe haven for these dolphins."